Gerima, who emigrated from Gondar, Ethiopia, in 1968 to study theater, is pondering the forces that converged to create his identity, as an African, as a Black man and as an artist. “Everything I got, every knowledge I have, comes out of African American intellectual property,” he explains. “It’s the books, the people I read — that’s why my wife and I built this bookstore. This is hundreds of years of Black intellectual production, right here.”
Gerima can claim his own essential part in that patrimony. For nearly half a century he has occupied a singular, quietly commanding position in American cinema. He was a founding member of the L.A. Rebellion, a group of UCLA film students who adamantly refused to cater to the careerist, mainstream Hollywood model of making movies in the late 1960s. He then went on to become a steadfastly independent auteur and, perhaps most influentially, a longtime film professor at Howard, where he mentored such directors and cinematographers as Ernest Dickerson, Malik Sayeed and Bradford Young.
At 75, Gerima still refers to his creative trajectory — defined by stories deeply rooted in memory, identity and political consciousness — as “my imperfect cinematic journey.” It’s a self-effacing way to explain why he’s not better known, or a venerated member of the mainstream elite. Although he earned plaudits with critics and connoisseurs for such films as “Bush Mama” (1976), “Ashes and Embers” (1982) and “Sankofa” (1993), he is routinely left out of the American auteurist canon.
“There was no place in the Hollywood industrial complex for a voice like Mr. Gerima’s at the time that would have been his point of entry,” says the Emmy-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay. “Instead of welcoming him, he was seen as fringe and radical and was placed on the outside of it all by industry’s inaction and lack of interest around his work. The beauty of his story is that he made the outside an epicenter.”
That epicenter is finally exerting a wider gravitational pull: Netflix just rereleased a digitally restored edition of “Sankofa,” an effort that DuVernay initiated through her distribution company, Array Releasing, two years ago. On Sept. 25, at the opening gala of the $250 million Academy Museum in Los Angeles, he will receive the museum’s first Vantage Award, designed to recognize “an artist or scholar who has helped contextualize and/or challenge dominant narratives around cinema.” (Other honorees of the evening will include Sophia Loren, Annette Bening and Tom Hanks.) And on Oct. 2, the museum will present a retrospective exhibit, “Imperfect Journey: Haile Gerima and his Comrades,” honoring his career.
“He deserves this time in the spotlight,” says DuVernay, whose nonprofit Array Alliance will also release a learning companion guide for “Sankofa” on array101.org. “I hope that it warms him personally and illuminates his genius to the world.”
DuVernay calls “Sankofa” Gerima’s “masterwork.” Thirty years after its release, the film’s seismic effect on the cinematic landscape is easy to underestimate. The film begins in Ghana, where an American model named Mona (Oyafunmike Ogunlano) is posing provocatively for a White photographer, against the backdrop of Cape Coast Castle, a notorious embarkation point for enslaved Africans. After a hallucinatory encounter with the souls imprisoned there, Mona is vaulted back in time to a Southern plantation where, as an enslaved woman named Shola, she navigates violence and degradation, as well as a nuanced taxonomy of survival, from compliance and accommodation to subversion and rebellion.
Poetic, impressionistic and densely layered, “Sankofa” often feels primitive and sometimes painfully obvious. But it exerts the rhythmic power of the incantation that recurs as a motif: “Lingering spirit of the dead, rise up!”
Although the TV series “Roots” had been produced 16 years earlier, when “Sankofa” made its world debut at the Berlin Film Festival in 1993, it was one of few feature films — if not the only one — to address enslavement so frankly and with such nuance. Although it was rejected by American distributors, it became an enormous grass-roots hit, largely through word-of-mouth in Black communities where it was shown. Arriving in the 1990s mini-Golden Age spearheaded by Allen and Albert Hughes, Spike Lee and John Singleton, as well as Black rom-coms like “Waiting to Exhale” and “Love Jones,” “Sankofa” felt like something of a rebuke. It was as if Gerima were urging his American brothers and sisters to stop, look back, return to their roots and do the hard work of confronting their past before bounding into a promising new future. (In Ghana, the word “Sankofa” means returning to one’s roots so that one may move forward.)
Gerima insists he did not mean to send a message with “Sankofa.”
“Every film I have made is a small piece of poetry, or a letter, to Black America,” he says. “One, for helping me salvage myself.”
Although his playwright father’s work had been anti-colonialist, Gerima didn’t bring a political or diasporic consciousness with him when he enrolled in the Goodman School of Drama in 1968. If anything, he had internalized the anti-Black racism of the Hollywood movies he’d watched at the local cinema and the Western chauvinism that undergirded the curriculums taught by mostly White Peace Corps volunteers. “In high school, ninth grade, I flunked English because I didn’t know how to spell ‘Connecticut,’ ” he recalls.
When he got to Illinois, Gerima says, he encountered racism that landed like a body blow to his psyche. “I didn’t have the armament to shelter myself,” he observes. “I was very vulnerable, to the point where I had nosebleeds from being unable to fight back like Black Americans taught me later on to fight back.”
He made “Sankofa,” he says, as a way of finding out “who Black people are, really. It’s not to tell them anything. I was just saying, ‘Who are these Black people?’ Because, like me, their whole problem is their disconnection from Africa.”
Because “Sankofa” addressed slavery so directly and with such intensity, and because it didn’t obey the strictures of the dominant aesthetics of the time — when such films as “Jurassic Park” and “Cliffhanger” were ascendant — it was dismissed by every major distributor. Gerima and Aina, who co-produced “Sankofa,” decided to self-release it, initially renting the Jenifer Theater in Northwest Washington and making sure the city’s Black community turned out. Aina launched a community-based fundraising campaign to finance striking an extra print of the film; from there, “Sankofa”began selling out theaters from New York to Los Angeles.
“From the outset I was embraced by Black people, from California to Chicago,” Gerima says, recalling his early years in America. “Every effort I made, they incubated me. So I knew there was a sleeping giant in that community that I didn’t have to fret about.”
As gratified as Gerima is by “Sankofa’s” rebirth, he’s more interested in getting back to the editing room downstairs, where he is hoping to complete long-gestating projects, one a narrative feature about Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and the other a documentary about the maroons, autonomous communities of escaped enslaved people that populated remote areas in Central America, the Caribbean and the Southern United States. “I began to write it as a ‘Sankofa’ sequel,” he says. “But then I said no, I should do a documentary first. Learn the vocabulary of this history and then tackle the drama.”
As ever, Gerima is engaging in his own form of maroonage; even as he is being honored in a bastion of the Hollywood establishment, he has no illusions about conquering it or changing it from within. “I don’t go to the plantation and say, ‘This is my house,’” he notes. “I don’t say a White producer owes it to me to make a film about my mother or my aesthetics. I think it’s too much to ask.” The aim, he says, should be “to create a liberated zone to do those movies you feel have to be done. And then let fair people partake.”